The Case for Project Management

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As all of those who have worked in the trenches well know, successful project management is the tie that binds services to results." So said Government Executive in introducing a series of articles on successful federal projects in the July issue. But is the statement true? Do all in the trenches really know about project management? Do their leaders support and understand sound project management approaches? Are those approaches part of the culture of federal organizations? Is project management used appropriately-especially in guiding information technology projects?

I believe that the answer to all of these questions is no. Project management principles are used extensively in some federal organizations, notably NASA and the Defense Department. But project management is far less common in other federal agencies. Furthermore, shortcomings exist across the board when it comes to using modern project management approaches in information technology. What's more, the enormity of many federal projects would challenge even the most experienced project managers.

A survey conducted by Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management, at the December 1998 Government Technology Leadership Institute suggests that project management in the federal sector still has a long way to go-at least in the information technology world. Institute participants were polled on key aspects of project management in their organizations-including project selection criteria, schedule estimation, project manager skill levels, progress monitoring, portfolio management, and shutdown criteria. For each of the key questions, two-thirds to three-quarters of the federal IT managers attending said there were shortcomings.

Just last April, Government Executive featured a special report, "Taming the Technology Beast," which drew some important lessons about project management from five large federal IT projects-successes and failures. It found, for example, that skilled proj- ect managers were in short supply in the federal government and that the massive scale of many federal projects was itself a major factor in failure.

The seven project management stories featured in the July issue of Government Executive were selected from 70 presented in Alexander Laufer and Edward J. Hoffman's excellent new book, Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders (John Wiley & Sons, 2000). Based on the stories, Laufer and Hoffman identify a number of behaviors that they believe lead to success. They conclude that successful proj- ects are vitally dependent on good leadership balanced with effective management.

No single approach will guarantee complete project success. But Laufer and Hoffman have got it right-the appropriate balance of leadership and management processes can minimize the risk of schedule delays, cost increases, and failure of the final product to meet mission needs. Heroic leadership in a bad process may save a proj- ect, but it can take a heavy human toll. A rigid management process with no leadership will lead to stagnation. But it's becoming clearer every day that no project management at all is a recipe for disaster.

Take note of what the private sector is saying about project management. Five years ago, Fortune magazine quoted senior business sources who said that "project management is going to be huge in the next decade," and that it is "the wave of the future." Their prediction was correct. Proj- ects, large and small, are the key method in modern organizations for transforming ideas into products and services. Project teams are a vital component of today's more agile and responsive organizations, where change is the rule and cross-functional activities have become the norm. According to "The Y2K Dividend," a February article in Computerworld magazine, project management was a key element in successfully surmounting the challenge of Year 2000 technology transformation.

A project is a one-shot activity that has specified objectives and deliverables as well as time, cost, and quality targets. It is distinct from the other day-to-day activities that a federal agency or department must perform.

A sound project management approach can help you sort good ideas from bad, understand the complexity and risk of the undertaking, craft an overall approach, and provide initial estimates of cost and schedule. Project management methods will help you seek and understand the views of all those likely to be affected and identify likely obstacles. The project management approach also will provide an up-front outline of the conditions under which a project should be terminated. Knowing when to pull the plug at the outset can prevent the kind of runaway projects that have plagued both the public and private sectors.

Project management provides a broad framework, specific approaches, and tools to effectively plan and manage your approved projects. It can play a pivotal role in identifying human resource needs, getting the right person assigned to the right spot on the team and building effective communications. It provides a framework for gathering information, monitoring key indicators, and taking action to keep the work on track. And it documents key information for later use by the team and by teams that follow.

If project management is not being applied in your organization, you must become its champion. You must work toward its introduction, dealing with the resistance you may encounter along the way. I recom- mend that you start by holding a project management meeting with your own leadership team. Bring in someone who can speak from experience about the value of a sound project management approach.

Where can you learn more? Practitioners in other government agencies and departments and in the business world are more than willing to share their project management experiences. An armada of private consulting organizations awaits your call to action. A wealth of information is also available through professional organizations, such as the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org).

Counter the Critics

Some disbelievers argue that project management entails too many rules and processes and that it can slow things down and stifle innovation. Their criticism is misdirected. The project management process need not be burdensome. By focusing attention on potential problems early and providing a well-understood process, it can actually ease pressures and facilitate innovation.

You may encounter "hard drivers" who prefer to proceed directly from an idea to the building of the product or service-skipping the initial scrub of the project idea and planning. Skipping those steps is a sure-fire formula for delays, cost growth and failure. Take, for example, the step of identifying project risks. Once risks are identified, you can work toward preventing or mitigating them. You won't identify everything that will go wrong, but you will ultimately save time and reserve your energies for the few risks you didn't anticipate.

Some critics argue that project management is inappropriate for IT projects. Heed their warnings. Although much of the traditional methodology applies to IT projects, significant differences exist between building systems and software and constructing bridges and buildings. If your concern is IT, make sure you find the right approach.

Finally, you will encounter those who argue that project management simply does not apply to the huge, complicated projects so often found in the federal government. The reverse is actually true. A large-scale, complex activity demands a systematic approach. The secret of project management is to divide the project into manageable pieces and knit them together using a larger blueprint or architecture.

When you've succeeded in developing a project management culture in your organization, is your work complete? Definitely not. Continuing support from the top is vital to project success. All project sponsors must understand their roles and actively commit time to their projects. Sponsors manage the project scope, ensuring that it remains focused on key mission needs. Vague direction and little involvement by a sponsor are a sure-fire formula for project failure.

How do these pieces come together for successful projects? Shaquille O'Neal may have the answer. In a recent television interview, the Los Angeles Lakers star offered a quote he attributed to Aristotle: "Excellence is not a single act, but a habit you do repeatedly."


C. Wayne Peal is a senior consultant and instructor at the Center for Project Management, San Ramon, Calif. He worked for many years at the CIA and has been active in federal reform initiatives.

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